Evelyn Underhill asked this question of herself one hundred years ago on the eve of the outbreak of The Great War. Oddly enough reading her book titled Practical Mysticism, I’m struck with how current it is. Her arguments against materialism and self- interest are as pertinent today as they were in 1914. And how strange it is to be reading her work at a time when the US appears to be on the verge of expanding the war on terror. This is the case especially when you consider how at the end of WW I, the victorious sliced, diced, and built nations in the Middle East which are root causes of today’s issues.
Evelyn Underhill is considered an authority on Christian mysticism having spent a lifetime researching, exploring, experiencing, and writing about it. For her, mysticism is defined as the art of union with reality. Notice the absence of the G- word. In order to justify taking up the call of this difficult journey, both inward and outward, mysticism to Evelyn’s mind must be practical. It’s not just about reaching up, it’s also about bringing down. While the experience of ultimate reality is personally transforming, mystics must create in the material world.
In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn outlines a universal process to be used by those interested in deeply engaging with reality. The first step requires the training of attention. With meditation and recollection, you begin to experience freedom, spaciousness, and peace. Your values change as you let go of your attachments. Later, as you develop in the first contemplation stage, you bring the “eyes of love toward the world”, recognizing the Immanent Being in everyone (and everything). You go in search of connection while dismantling your own personality. During the second contemplation, you’re pulled into deeper levels of reality which are supported now by an inward push. At this stage, knowing is achieved through direct intuitive contact and not through thought or feeling. Here the depth and height of your experience transforms you. The transcendent nature of mystical experience is ineffable, but that has never stopped mystics from trying to describe it.
One line truly stood out from the book for me. Evelyn says (and here Christian mystics seem to depart from Eastern traditions), “Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly.” Of course, there are whole traditions that advocate just that.
Returning to Evelyn’s map of mystical progress, the third contemplation is characterized by a ceasing of your active efforts. You let go of striving and rest in the darkness and quietude. The self surrenders, receives, and gains a conviction in the certainty of the Transcendent. What you actually experience depends on the individual. Some may experience ecstasy, but it is always on some level, unity through personal encounter. From here, you return to the material world to take up the mystical life going deeper and wider, permanently changed. Now the work involves becoming “an active and impassioned servant of eternal wisdom.” In Evelyn’s model, contemplation is never an end in itself. The challenge of the spiritual life is to go up and down the ladder getting inspiration and creating in the world. The work to be done today is huge; much like it was back in 1914. The true mystic takes up the call to live a “better, intenser, and more significant life.”